The night fears and mania of a boy are juxtaposed with two adults’ uncomfortable discoveries of ambiguity, betrayal, abandonment and the unreliability of memory in the brilliant, tortuously overlapping dialogue that powers David Mamet’s semi-autobiographical Cryptogram at the Ashby Stage in a Shotgun Players production.
Mamet, who made much of his stellar reputation in the ‘70s and ‘80s with hard-edged stage speech and characters representing the lonely, brutal dissociations of American public and private life (something that could be associated with the theatrical tradition of Strindberg), here shows a deceptively quieter, more domestic perspective. Like The Old Neighborhood, directed by Joy Carlin at Aurora awhile back, it’s more Chekhovian, exploring the spaces in between what’s said and thought and done. Not very much seems to get done onstage, though the background of life in all its little details becomes the foreground of this kind of play, seemingly predicated on autobiography and can open up into (for want of a better term) the spiritual, even the cosmic, as experienced in everyday language and routine, or its disruption.
A bachelor family friend talks genially, sometimes in games and riddles, sometimes in shared references, with his friends’ son, who can’t sleep—at first waiting for his father who will take him to “the lake,” and later, after his never-glimpsed father has left the family, of his fears and near-visionary experiences, which he describes to the adults, emerging repeatedly from his bedroom.
Del, the genderlessly-named old friend, as played a bit floridly by Kevin Clarke, refers to himself at one point as a silly old queen, and it’s his ambiguous friendship with Donny (also ambiguously named, though not played ambiguously by Zehra Berkman) and her absent husband, the boy’s father (an otherwise unambiguous Robert), that’s the dramatic fulcrum on which the matter of the play is hammered out by dialogue, tempered with the silence between lines, between thought and speech.
In the meantime, there’s much looking at photos, trying to discern what’s what even in the documents that should jog memory, one disagreeing with the other, and interrupting them midstream, filling in what that other remembers differently, or at all.
Like Beckett’s plays, or an older kind of theater, the very objects onstage, handled and discussed by the cast—a book, a camping knife—take on a mysterious, almost fateful quality, changing in meaning as their apparent insignificance is colored by an almost Proustian sense, touchstones to the past, or even another dimension of whatever experience is in question.
A play like this is hard to act, hard to stage, and Shotgun approaches it with their can-do signature, their hallmark. Patrick Dooley, Shotgun’s founder, had the task of keeping his actors on the strict tether of the text (which, as an actor friend once said of Pinter, “It’s like chamber music, a string quartet, you play it right from the page in ensemble; there is no other subtext,”) while paradoxically giving them their own head. Post-show talkbacks heard the cast and director discussing all the ways they tried framing and delivering this virtuoso piece. They threw themselves into this wringer of verbal exchange, and Gideon Lazarus, as young John, deserves special mention for his handling of the boy’s end of it, more than a child’s portion.
With exchanges that, in a more emotional moment, run like: “Am I to be accused of this? What do you mean?” “...That’s my point,” sympathies have to be on the side of the actor. There’s a little bit too much of accenting on the beat, though, which emphasizes jangles and “hot spots” in a play where what comes out of the quieter, offbeat moments and what’s unsaid constitute much of the point.
One character talks about how we “live as if there’s no end to it, and suddenly ...” A good deal of what’s suggested in this small masterpiece is about the limits of mortality and what seems to continue, beyond our immediate apprehension, in spite of it--or in anticipation of it. Less confrontational than some of Mamet’s more famous work, this is a play that audiences need to confront and absorb.
Cryptogram at the Ashby Stage, 1901 Ashby Ave.
Thurs.-Sun. 8 p.m.
through June 17